It’s a non-milestone year for our family. No one is graduating this year. None of the four kids is new to his or her respective school. No one is being adopted, baptized or receiving their First Communion. Bill and I have been at the same workplaces for about a decade each, and while we’re thinking of buying a new couch for the family room, we don’t have any other exciting home-improvement projects on the horizon. He and I, out for our twenty-first wedding anniversary (another non-milestone year, when compared to twenty or twenty-five) reflected over dinner how intensely “in the middle” we are.
“If only we knew somehow, that this was all going to turn out, this would be so much easier,” Bill said.
I understood exactly what he meant. In the early days of marriage, when we were in our twenties, with pudgy toddlers and early careers, anything was possible. Age 40 seemed impossibly far off and I couldn’t quite imagine having a child who could speak in full sentences, let alone one who would actually finish high school, make it to college and live a couple hundred miles away. Even into our early thirties, each year brought new possibilities—Bill jumped out of his marketing career and went back to school to become a teacher; we leapt into foster care; we built a deck on the back of our house with help from our still-childless friends and a brochure from Home Depot.
Now, fifteen years later, having surged past the once far-off age of 40, we are deep into the family life we began as early-marrieds. With four kids ages 11, 12, 16 and 19, the question marks in our marriage have shifted from ourselves to our children. Each question has a different child as its center. Will Jacob find a major that can lead him to meaningful work? Where will Liam go to college? Can our parenting of Teenasia make up for her difficult early years? What will Jamie’s strong personality look like in adolescence?
We are in the middle of parenting and middles are difficult. When I ran cross country in high school and college, the middle was the most challenging part of the race. Adrenaline carried me through the first half mile, and sheer will brought me to the finish, but the middle of the course — with hills and woods and sometimes streams to jump over-- that was where the real work was. The middle was filled with tactical decisions—if I pass now, will she pass me back later? If I pick up speed now, will I have enough energy to finish? The importance of tactical decisions is true with parenting in the preteen and teen years, as well. Do we address the messy room or let it go? If I put more energy into the relationship, will it pay off, or will I collapse from fatigue? Do I give the second reminder, or allow natural consequences to prevail? As with cross country, the middle of the parenting course requires both endurance and faith. Bill’s question from our dinner is the question of every runner who has passed the water station but can’t yet see the finish. We know our position now—the question is how will it affect the outcome? The only way to answer the question is to keep running hard, keep parenting as well as we are able.
We are in the middle. We’re sweaty and breathing hard and we’ve got mud splattered on our legs from the last puddle we couldn’t quite jump over. But we’re running together, Bill and I, through the middle of our marriage, the middle of our parenting. If the first half of the race has shown us anything, it’s that we’re loyal teammates. And as the course veers up a hill or into the woods, we’re ready for it, because we’ve been training together. Sometimes Bill leads. Sometimes I do. And sometimes the course is wide enough that we can run side by side.